Own Your Beauty: On Faces and Eyes, Especially Mine
Own Your Beauty is a groundbreaking, year-long movement bringing women together to change the conversation about what beauty means. Our mission: to encourage and remind grown women that it is never too late to learn to love one's self and influence the lives of those around us - our mothers, friends, children, neighbors. We can shift our minds and hearts and change the path we follow in the pursuit of authentic beauty.
It was a mistake. An error in a shipping label or a database glitch, maybe, but a mistake for sure.
And yet this completely coincidental accident seemed anything but coincidental.
It was odd for me to email her. Although we’ve met once and I’ve written about her here, Karen and I aren’t close friends. Certainly not the kind of friends that email each other on the way home from therapy.
And yet, as I drove down the Interstate last Wednesday morning with the sticky residue of tears on my cheeks, I knew I had to email her. I had to get answers, and my gut was certain that she was the place to start. I got home and logged onto my email before I lost my nerve; I knew it was presumptuous to drag this casual acquaintance into my darkest place, my Original Hurt, if you will.
When you took my photo in NYC, was it hard to take a picture of me because of my lazy eyes?
I wanted to throw up as soon as I hit send. Typing the words was damn near as painful as saying them out loud, something I go to great lengths to avoid with phrases like “you know” and “eye thing” and “Vote for a Democrat! WHO WANTS PIE?!?” The oldest scab on my psyche had been picked at in my therapist’s office, and now I was picking at it here on the Internet without a safety net. But I couldn’t take them back now.
It only took her 16 minutes to respond.
The general idea was that, no, nothing had interfered with her ability to take my picture. She went on to talk a little about her philosophy as a photographer, about capturing a person’s “spark,” things like that. There were nearly 300 words in her email about taking pictures of people and genuine beauty and universal beauty and blah blah blah. Nearly 300 words total, but 27 lept off the screen and kicked me in my gut.
I will admit, when I first met you, I was surprised by your eyes —- not put off in any way, you understand, it was just unexpected.
And there it was. Confirmation of what I already knew. Here, amidst kind words from a woman who had no intention of hurting me, was the truth I was constantly trying to duck.
The first thing you notice when you see me in person is that I am a freak. There is something wrong with me. From every moment on, you will be struggling to overcome this freakishness out of respect for my personality, but always at the root of what you see -– of who I am –- is a cross-eyed girl.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The fact that my eyes tend to turn in is a physical fact, not an opinion about my character or a preference of type. It is what it is, and what it is is always there. Unavoidable. The first thing you see if you shake my hand and look me in the face, as strangers tend to do when they are meeting for the first time and shaking hands.
For the second time in one day, I found myself drowning in a lifetime of emotions that had been carefully kept just out of reach. Wave after wave of shame and anger washed over me, each one deeper than the next. I groped for reassurance, for the lifelines I had clung to for 30 years. Thirty years of avoiding mirrors and hating pictures and hoping my eyes squinted when I smiled really big. Thirty years of forgetting for a moment what I looked liked and being ashamed when I remembered the truth. Thirty years of being both grateful and resentful of the pity that those who loved me bestowed upon me in order to love me, in order to see past my shame and find something beautiful to comment on.
But there were no more lifelines. The truth I’d been avoiding was that there was no reassurance in the world that could change me. I could delude myself temporarily, but it didn’t change what we were all trying so hard not to look at.
I was stuck with this truth. But so, too, was I stuck with a life to maintain and work to do. I packed up my bitterness into its old boxes and got on with the business of life.
Two hours later, Karen emailed me again.
I don’t know why. I certainly hadn’t told her of my pain or tears or dry heaving. But here she was, emailing me again, telling me she felt like maybe she hadn’t answered my question exactly right. And then, a few emails later, she was telling me all about her belief that flaws don’t exist.
She compared my eyes to her race in that, if you hadn’t seen us before, you might be surprised upon first meeting to discover my eyes or her race. Not good or bad, she explained, just unexpected.“But then, once you get to know me, it’s not that you forget that I’m black, but it’s just not as important, you know? Like no different than not taking constant notice of my height, or my weight, or the necklace or bracelet that I always wear. It’s just a part of the whole.”
I thought it was ridiculous that she was comparing my crossed fucking eyes to her race. Her race was part of what made her so beautiful, with her radiant skin the color of Hershey’s kisses and her perfectly spiraled mane of dark, kinky hair. She was fucking gorgeous. But then, gorgeous people, I thought, always have a hard time understanding what it’s like to wear your shame on your face.
But she went on.
She went on to talk about how we seem to need to categorize differences as either good or bad instead of just things that are. She explained that the premise of her book is this belief, this logic, that we are all in some way beautiful in spite of and because of our differences. She said a lot that amounted to me being just as beautiful as anyone else, a premise that she explained with logic rather than sentimental ideals.
And at the risk of copying and pasting even moreof her personal emails to me onto a blog without her permission, the crux of it was this:
THERE ARE NO FLAWS.
There are differences, she explained, but not flaws.
I thanked her for her time, stored her email in my archives and tucked her words into my brain to mull over. No flaws? This was not an idea that whitewashed my freakishness, but rather required that I face it head on and accept it. I couldn’t embrace the beauty of different or the philosophy of no flaws while trying to pretend not to see mine or working to distract everyone else from staring too long.
I wasn’t sure I had the strength to do that.
I hoped someday I would.
A few days passed and I tried not to think too hard about the therapy session or the email exchange or the fact that I was going to Las Vegas to meet thousands of strangers face to face.
One of my best friends blogged about what it feels like to be told you’re gorgeous. I practically choked on my resentment as she tried to explain that it was nothing, a mere coincidence of her DNA. I wondered, not for the first time in my life, how it was that I constantly found myself in really close relationships with exceptionally attractive people.
I walked in the door last night with my keys in one hand, a laptop bag in the other, and my catch-all bag slung across my chest. I instinctively stopped at the threshold to check for backpacks and tennis shoes that would be waiting to knock me on my ass. I found, instead, a flat cardboard box that I knew held a photo.
Someone had sent me another piece of art from the BlogHer auction.
Curious, Emma and I cut open the box and found a photo that I recognized from the exhibit in New York City.
What the hell?
While I recognized the piece vaguely, I had absolutely no idea why someone would have sent it to me. I didn’t know what post had inspired the piece, what artist had created it, or what in the fuck it was supposed to be about. Why was someone sending me random art?
A quick search online revealed that the piece was called “Untitled” and had been created by an artist named Renee Garner, inspired by a post called “Perky breasts won’t fix your life. Really. They won’t.”
Now I was not only confused, but mildly insulted. Was someone trying to tell me that I didn’t have perky breasts? I actually knew that, thank you very much, but I still thought it was rude to have it pointed out with an anonymous gift.
I clicked on the link and began to read the post by Christy from Transplanted.
It was a post about mother’s not needing to be told that they need plastic surgery in order to be beautiful. It was a post about scars and changes and the evolution of beauty. It was a post of a cruel message that advertisers and society sends to mothers about how they should cling to who they were and what they looked like before they had children. It is a post made up of 1008 words and 16 paragraphs, but one of them lept off the screen and kicked me in my gut:
“Three small pin lines herald 1990 and the only pageant I ever competed in -– one on the right side of my neck, one just behind my left ear and one that sits in perfect alignment with my spine. I believed that removing three benign moles (beauty marks, really )would make me beautiful enough to compete. I lost the big prize but won the talent award, which had nothing to do with perfect skin. The small wooden plaque is one of my personal treasures. I was just 16. I made a note to myself that year about what “flawless” means.”
And there was that word again: flawless.
And there, too, in the other 15 paragraphs of the post, was this idea that beauty was the result of variety and differences and evolution and even scars. The words I’d tucked into my mind to turn over later came tumbling out, and along with them came a new set of questions.
Would I tell my daughter some day that her stretch marks made her less beautiful?
Was it possible that her race was like my crossed-eyes? That there were people in the world who would use a broad nose and dark skin and kinky hair as ammunition to hurt Karen, but only if they were really fucked in the head? And if such a horrible thing happened, would it make Karen any less beautiful than I knew her to be?
What would I tell my daughter if she had a lazy eye, or crossed eyes, or some kind of medical mystery combination of the two that was sometimes there and sometimes not? Would I pity her and her ugliness? Would I have to learn to see past her face?
What if it was acne?
Or misaligned teeth?
Or pale skin?
Or brown skin?
Or thin lips?
Or red cheeks?
Or a double chin?
Or a large birthmark above her eyebrow?
Would I weep that she had not been blessed with a perfect face?
Would I be grateful to her loved ones for taking her into their hearts, in spite of her deformities?
Would I teach her to laugh loudly and be in constant motion in order to prevent anyone getting a really good look at her, lest they be appalled by the truth?
While the answers seem easy in theory, these are actually very difficult questions to imagine because Emma, like Devin, is fortunate enough to be perfect.
I tried to look at her with a critical eye, to test a theory that maybe my love for her allowed me to overlook her flaws. But she is flawless. She is light and joy and beauty personified.
But then, so is nearly everyone that I know. I picked through my brain to recall someone I knew who was not beautiful, someone whose differences were so hideous that they couldn’t be denied as flaws. None. Not a one.
Was it possible that I was a supernatural magnet for attractive people? Why is it that most of the most beautiful people I know have shared with me some perceived flaw they see when they look in the mirror?
Could it be that differences –- even differences like crossed eyes –- really were just things that were? Could it be that these differences weren’t automatically judged as good or bad by all, but that they were taken in and weighed as part of the greater whole? Could it be that while some would toss me into The Bad pile, that others would not have to struggle to see me as beautiful? Could it be that the whichever route they chose was a reflection on them, and not me?
The questions won’t stop now.
I emailed the woman in charge of the BlogHer auctions about the photo that showed up at my door. It was supposed to be delivered to a woman in San Jose.
And yet here it sits on my dining room table, daring me to keep asking questions.
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